Dir: Ken Russell, 1975
One of Ken Russell’s rarer mainstream titles, second only to Savage Messiah, Lisztomania is Ken’s successor to his earlier work, Tommy.
Starring Roger Daltrey, as the infamous pianist Franz Liszt, Russell’s film seeks to try and outdo The Who’s opus with its unrelenting focus on sex and esoteric imaginings.
More of a musical and less of a biography, the movie is a smorgasbord of bizarre fantasy and hardly anything to do with Liszt’s actual life.
What was going on in the director’s head when he wrote and directed this, is open to interpretation. Frankly, I haven’t got a clue.
But, that’s not to say it’s a bad film because it isn’t. It’s a very enjoyable film, as long as you look at it as a camp romp.
The opening scene has Liszt kissing the breasts of Marie d’Agoult in time to a metronome. Caught by her husband, the Count d’Agoult, a sword fight ensues between the Count and Liszt. The scene ends with Liszt and Marie in a piano on a railway track with a train speeding towards them.
Played for laughs, the comedic tone of the scene lets you know straight away what you’re in for.
Russell goes all out in this. Any opportunity to flash some tits and arse, he takes it, greedily, and exploits it.
Many notable stars appear in this, lending credence to its being more of a fantasy musical. Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr, makes a cameo as the pope sitting on a motorised throne.
Possibly the most bizarre casting arrives in the shape of Rick Wakeman, keyboardist for prog-rock band, Yes.
Here, Wakeman is sprayed silver and strapped into platformed boots, all in the guise of playing Thor. With a barely a line to utter, the character just grins and laughs moronically.
Riding on the success of Tommy, Russell employs Paul Nicholas, who played the sadistic Cousin Kevin. For this, Nicholas is Richard Wagner, a bloodsucking vampire.
Fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show should clearly spot Nell Campbell (AKA Little Nell) as Olga Janina.
Oddly, the film ends with a clone of Hitler firing a machine gun in the shape of a guitar. Liszt, in some sort of rocket, flies down from heaven and destroys the threat.
Now this is only a sample of what goes on in the film. It gets even weirder with 10ft erections, a Charlie Chaplin sketch and all manner of things.
It’s not hard to see why it’s one of his more obscure films. The film doesn’t have the mainstream appeal of most his earlier works.
The soundtrack is pretty good. But, don’t be fooled. There are two soundtracks to the film. Rick Wakeman was hired to create the music for the film and, unsurprisingly, uses synthesizers and keyboards. The other is more lyric based. The final song, Peace At Last (co-written by Daltrey), is enormously catchy and finishes the film on a high note (pun intended).
Disliked by critics and moviegoers unsure of what to make of it is scarcely shown on television and the film sank into obscurity and only kept alive by fans of Russell and The Who.
A brief video was released by Warner Home Video in the pre cert era but didn’t make any impact.
Available for roughly a year, the tape was deleted and never resurfaced again.
However, over the years reactions to the film have changed and it is now looked on more kindly. It was just a bit ahead of its time.
Thanks to the internet, fans of the film forced a renewed interest and called for it to be given the proper release it deserves.
In 2009, DVD distributor Digital Classics released a remastered, widescreen DVD with commentary by the man himself, Ken Russell.
It’s Russell so expect nudity and extravagance.
Accept it as a lighthearted, rock jaunt and you might just enjoy it.